Marine, novelist, dad: a conversation with Elliot Ackerman
Three-time novelist Elliot Ackerman's latest book, "Waiting for Eden," explores the multiple dimensions of veterans’ lives after war, and what it means to love someone despite limitations and challenges.
Elliot Ackerman served five tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan. But the three-time novelist doesn’t want readers to only see him as “the war guy.” His most recent 192-page novel, “Waiting for Eden,” is not a book about war, he says. It’s a book about love and communication – and what we do when there is no hope.
While war does cause the injuries that confine the titular character Eden Malcolm to a hospital bed for three years, the central conflict of “Waiting for Eden” revolves around Mary, Eden’s wife, and how she deals with his suffering. Eden’s best friend and fellow Marine, who died in the blast that injures Eden, narrates the novel.
“Waiting for Eden” delves into the multiple dimensions of veterans’ lives – something civilians sometimes struggle to see. Ackerman himself earned a Silver Star and Purple Heart in the second Battle of Fallujah in 2004, but he wears a different type of memento on his wrist every day – a primary colored beaded bracelet.
“I’m a dad,” he says. “When your 3-year-old makes you a bracelet you wear the bracelet.”
The author recently sat down with the Monitor for a conversation about “Waiting for Eden.” The following excerpt has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Mary asks the narrator, Eden’s best friend, how he's feeling ahead of his second deployment. And he says the first time he wanted to go, the second time he needed to go. What is the difference?
That is something I try to teach my children: What do we want in life and what do we need in life? We often don't know the difference – and we can get in a lot of trouble when we don't. So that comment is the narrator wrestling with how his view of the war has evolved. When he first went to the war, he wanted to go, he wanted to try it, he wanted to see what it was. And in the second portion, he needed to go, he couldn't stop going – like it was an addiction.
The book is very much about Mary’s and Eden's marriage. What role does needing and wanting play in this relationship?
So much of this book is actually about communication, because when the book starts Eden is non-communicative and has been for a long time, and the breakthrough is when he becomes communicative, saying what he wants and what he needs. And Mary is saying the same thing to him toward the end of the book, so the tension of the novel is the tension between their different wants and needs. I think a huge thing in this book, too, is this idea of agency. Eden is trying to take agency over his life. He's trying to say whether or not he wants to live or die.
You mentioned earlier that often when we think about trauma, including trauma from a war, we think it ends at a fixed point, but it doesn’t. What does that mean?
I think that this is the idea about grief that I get at in the book. Grief is a type of faith. When you enter that period of grieving you do so with the faith that the process of grieving will take you through the loss and get you to the other end where, in some way shape and form, you are restored and made whole. And sometimes that is the journey, and sometimes it isn’t. There are some losses that don't ever abate and then this idea of – you're no longer grieving, so what are you doing? I think in those cases you are just left waiting. And that's what all the characters in this book are left doing in one degree or another.
But waiting has some hope in it, doesn’t it?
Sure. But sometimes we just wait. In this book, everyone is just waiting. And what does it mean to keep that type of vigil? Can you love someone when there is no hope? Can you just let go of the hope? Can you say, “I love you not because of this, because you're this way, but I love you despite this, despite all of your limitations.”
What were you saying about love through Mary’s comment that she hates Eden ‘in that broken way we reserve for those we truly love?’
You know, I think real love when you get down to it, love, marriage, kids – it's war. It's hard. You sacrifice a lot of yourself to love someone else. That's what love is really about. It's really about when things are messy, when you're choosing to stick with it even when there's a million reasons not to stick with it, that's when you really find love. If you really want to talk about what love is, that's what it is. If you want to write a book about love, you write about broken people wrestling with life's toughest things and finding these moments where they realize they are irreconcilably connected to one another. You look back at your life and the people who you feel close to are the people you've had [tough] experiences like that with. Once there is the time to heal, you wind up stronger at the broken places. Or probably – strongest at the broken places.